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Myanmar Takes Careful Steps Following Protest Crackdown

October 26, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The military rulers of Myanmar, the country also known as Burma, released 50 pro-democracy activists as its representatives met with movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Human rights advocates assess conditions since last month's crackdown on the protests.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The streets of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, have been largely quiet since the violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters late last month. Nevertheless, the military rulers of the Southeast Asian nation deployed troops in the streets today, a show of force intended to deter any protests marking the one-month anniversary of a pivotal day in the uprising.

Yesterday, the government released 70 prisoners detained during the unrest, 50 of whom are members of the pro-democracy party led by the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. The release represents a fraction of the estimated 6,000 Burmese detained amid the protests.

Also yesterday, Suu Kyi met in public with a newly appointed government official. The government has been under pressure from the United Nations to foster reconciliation with Suu Kyi and her party. The U.N.’s lead envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, said there is much left for the government to do.

IBRAHIM GAMBARI, U.N. Envoy to Myanmar: Clearly, we welcome that, but we see it as only the first step. And so this should lead to the early resumption of the dialogue that will lead to concrete and tangible results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The demonstrations began in August, initially to protest high fuel prices, but the protests evolved into a challenge to the ruling military junta, which has controlled Myanmar, also known as Burma, for the last 20 years.

The protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks and spread to other Burmese cities. The generals who control the country crushed the protests in a bloody crackdown over the course of several days. The government claimed only 10 people were killed; independent estimates place the toll in the hundreds.

Reports from refugees leaving the country have begun to emerge, and they paint a picture of carnage and chaos. This monk, who requested anonymity even outside his native land, was interviewed in Thailand by a Burmese pro-democracy dissident group.

BURMESE DISSIDENT (through translator): Some of the injured were so bloody that you couldn’t tell where blood was coming from. Some of the monks lost the top part of their robes. I saw civilians helping the injured monks; most of their injuries were head injuries. The riot police were aiming for the head.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The crackdown, which reportedly continues, sparked widespread international outrage. Economic sanctions already in place were strengthened by the United Nations and other bodies. And President Bush announced that the U.S. would impose additional economic penalties on the ruling junta.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Burma’s rulers continue to defy the world’s just demands to stop their vicious persecution. They continue to dismiss calls to begin peaceful dialogue aimed at national reconciliation. Most of all, they continue to reject the clear will of the Burmese people to live in freedom under leaders of their own choosing.

Situation 'murky' in Myanmar

Tin Maung Thaw
U.S. Campaign for Burma
The government shut down all those monasteries in Rangoon. And those monasteries used to have hundreds of monks, but now they have only two or three monks. Nobody knows where they've gone, and they disappeared. That's my main concern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. is encouraging its Asian allies to bolster their sanctions against Myanmar.

For more, we talk to Tin Maung Thaw, a Burmese exile and board member of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Now a U.S. citizen, he fled Burma in 1978 to avoid political persecution.

And Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, he served in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.

Thank you both for being here.

Mr. Thaw, I'm going to begin with you. What do you know right now about what's going on inside your country?

TIN MAUNG THAW, U.S. Campaign for Burma: Currently inside Burma, the situation is very murky. Nobody knows exactly what is going on. But according to those people fled to Thai-Burma border, including monks and other regular people, according to the accounts, there's a lot of crackdown is still going on.

The government shut down all those monasteries in Rangoon. And those monasteries used to have hundreds of monks, but now they have only two or three monks. Nobody knows where they've gone, and they disappeared. That's my main concern.

I think they're under arrest and sent into prison and subject to torture. And we don't know exactly how many were arrested or how many were killed. Usually, Burmese military government never tells the truth, so we don't know the exact number. But some people from border area estimated they arrested about 21,000 people, and about 1,900 people were killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty one thousand arrests, and how many killed?

TIN MAUNG THAW: Nineteen hundred, 1,900, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these are estimates?

TIN MAUNG THAW: Yes, these are estimates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Tom Malinowski, you were telling us you have somewhat different numbers you're getting. What's the picture you're getting?

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: Well, it's a stage of siege in Burma. There's no question about that. We don't know what the numbers are, because the country is closed. No one has access to the prisons. There's no way of getting a true picture of the death toll right now.

But it is a state of siege: The monasteries are occupied by the military; the troops are in the streets; there are nighttime raids in which security forces go neighborhood by neighborhood, pull people out of their homes who they believe, based on their video footage, participated in these demonstrations. People are very, very much afraid.

But I think it's interesting the government is also afraid and has some reason to fear what might happen next.

Matching faces to video

Tom Malinowski
Human Rights Watch
There is still a political impasse inside Burma between this military government ... and the vast majority of, virtually everybody else in the country who supports the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say looking at videos, you mean they're matching the faces on videos that were shot during the protests?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Yes, that's what they say they're doing. They'll go into a neighborhood and say on the loud speaker, "We have your pictures. We know who you are. You might as well turn yourselves in." So that's used to scare people, and also I think they are doing some of that matching.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mr. Thaw, you're hearing this is going on even until right now, continuing?

TIN MAUNG THAW: Yes, even right now. After 11:00 at night -- they impose a curfew from 11:00 to 4:00 in the morning, so nobody can get out of their house, but the military can go around and pick up, as Tom said. They're stalking at night all those dissidents or whoever participated in the demonstration in the past 30 days, and also they arrested all those monks and took away in military trucks.

So now they either have to use -- they're going to those refugees in the Thai-Burma border area. They have to use Rangoon University old buildings as a detention center, because the Insein prison, which is notorious for this, political prisoner holding cells, they are full. So the prison, as far as we know, is large enough to hold 10,000 people. So it must be more than 10,000 people were held.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tom Malinowski, when we hear today that they've freed 70 people, how significant is that?

TOM MALINOWSKI: I don't think it's very significant. There is still a political impasse inside Burma between this military government -- which is hold up in this bizarre, isolated capital in the jungle, just completely disconnected from its society -- and the vast majority of, virtually everybody else in the country who supports the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi. There is not yet a dialogue between the two parties. There is this very, very tense standoff, and no one quite knows what's going to happen next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So to describe it, I mean, a pervasive atmosphere of fear throughout the country?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Yes. Yes. But I think, you know, as I mentioned, I think the government is also afraid. They're losing control of the situation. They're disconnected from their people.

Internally, they face this problem of, what do you do with the Buddhist monasteries? They can't eliminate Buddhism from the country anymore than Italy could eliminate the Catholic Church. At some point, these monasteries reopen. The monks with their red robes come back, and dissent re-emerges.

Outside of the country, they've lost their sources of support, from their neighbors, from their former allies, and they're now suffering these very, very targeted sanctions.

Effect of the sanctions

Tin Maung Thaw
U.S. Campaign for Burma
Air Bagan issued a statement yesterday. They said, because of the U.S. sanctions and other financial controls, they can no longer operate the airline, so they're going to shut down on November 4th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the sanctions. Do you know what effect the sanctions are having? The Bush administration announced some sanctions last month, more sanctions in the last week.

TIN MAUNG THAW: So far, I saw one impact to the Burma airline called Air Bagan, which was owned by General Than Shwe's wife. And...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the general...

TIN MAUNG THAW: General Than Shwe, the butcher of Burma, who killed those monks, number-one man of the power in Burma. And his wife owned this Air Bagan since three years ago. Now Air Bagan issued a statement yesterday. They said, because of the U.S. sanctions and other financial controls, they can no longer operate the airline, so they're going to shut down on November 4th. And they offered who already bought ticket, they're going to give a refund.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a significant move?

TOM MALINOWSKI: It's a small sign of something that's going to be happening increasingly. The Burmese government, Burmese military makes money from various sources. They sell gems, rubies, hardwood, oil and gas. And it's very hard to cut off all of those sources of income.

But however they're making money, the money always ends up in one place: in a bank, usually in a country like Singapore, outside of Burma, where it's vulnerable to pressure from the U.S. Treasury Department, because all of these banks depend on their access to the U.S. financial system to be able to do their own business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, the U.S. asked the countries in the region to put on their own pressure, as well. Is that happening?

TOM MALINOWSKI: The magical thing about these sanctions is the other countries don't actually have to join in. The banks in Singapore apparently are already freezing accounts held by Burmese leaders, by the companies associated with those leaders, not because their own governments are telling them to, but because those banks, in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, depend on their access to the U.S. financial system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is a new...

TOM MALINOWSKI: It's a new kind of sanction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... kind of sanction.

TOM MALINOWSKI: It's very targeted, very sophisticated, highly personal. It doesn't affect the people of the country; it affects the people at the top. And it's essentially like taking away the credit card of the generals.

Meeting with dissident leader

Tom Malinowski
Human Rights Watch
[W]hat they're being asked to do is to compromise, to share power, and gradual transition. As easy as that sounds, I don't think they're going to do that until the pain of not doing it exceeds the pain, in their minds, of taking that step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Thaw, how significant a meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government official in the last day?

TIN MAUNG THAW: According to past experience, most of the meeting will take place when international pressure is building up. So military uses it as a defusing method to defuse the situation and to satisfy the international community. "We are doing something."

Actually, they don't have any sincere intention to do this. They have almost 20 years -- after 1990 election -- 20 years to have a meaningful national reconciliation process. They never did. Instead of doing that, they just tried to crack down on the opposition.

And now they tried to use that method again. They just tried to use as a deceptive method to the international community and Burmese people, and something is going to happen or something like that, false hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with Mr. Malinowski's assessment that the government is starting to feel some pressure, though?

TIN MAUNG THAW: Yes, especially because I think now China also -- China is a main backer of the Burmese regime. And China now is also concerned for the 2008 Olympics.

So China says something to Burmese regime, "Keep it in low profile. Don't kill too many people or something like that." So because of the -- they tried to protect their image, China itself. But I think, after 2008 Olympics, China may do business as usual again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we're talking about pressure from the U.S., pressure from these other, economic pressure here. Tom Malinowski, what does it take for there to be a real change in the attitude of this military government towards the people?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, the good news is that they're not being asked to step down. Aung San Suu Kyi, who's the leader of the opposition, is not a revolutionary. She has said for many years that she believes that the military, despite all it's done to her and the people of the country, should play a vital political role in the future of the country.

So what they're being asked to do is to compromise, to share power, and gradual transition. As easy as that sounds, I don't think they're going to do that until the pain of not doing it exceeds the pain, in their minds, of taking that step. And that's where the pressure from regional countries, from China, from India, from ASEAN, the regional association of countries, comes in, and particularly this pressure on the banks and on their finances.

Because, you know, when they can no longer draw money from their bank accounts, and their credit cards are canceled, and their kids come to them and say, "Dad, what have you done? We're broke," that's the point where I think they feel they may need a way out. And, fortunately, the way out is not that hard for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch, we thank you very much. And, Tin Maung Thaw, we thank you. Gentlemen, we appreciate it.

TIN MAUNG THAW: Thank you for having me.

TOM MALINOWSKI: Thank you.